The idea of God scared me as a child. At least the idea of an all-knowing, omnipresent one did. Being told that God was watching my every action, listening to every word I spoke and knowing every idea that entered my head was simultaneously comforting and disturbing, as I was also informed the Almighty was keeping a record of both my good and bad deeds, a list of pros and cons about my existence that would ultimately be judged to determine whether I spent eternity in peaceful paradise or a burning hell. Like most Southern black families, church was a weekly, required ritual at my house. By the time I was 8 or 9 I could recite all books of the Bible in order from memory, knew the biblical stories by heart, and was baptized (on Mother's Day no less). I always tried to stay awake during the sermons, no matter how long, and listen to the testimonies, no matter how long, because I knew God was watching I didn't want the crime of being bored in church added to my sin list.
Even as a kid, I always had questions about Christianity, from asking why the dinosaurs I'd been taught about in school weren't mentioned in the Bible, or since the devil was a fallen angel who sinned against God, could other heavenly creatures or believers, once they reach heaven, sin again? Or if God really wanted everyone to believe in him and not doubt, why wouldn't he just reveal himself and say "Hey everyone, it's God! I'm real! I exist!" and be done with it. Or what about the all the people who lived their whole lives and never heard about God? Did they just Pass, Go and collect $200 straight to heaven for their ignorance? It didn't seem right.
To these questions my parents, often my mother, would attempt to cite scripture or engage me, but these discussions would usually end with the classic and endlessly frustrating lines "We don't know for sure," "It'll all make sense when we get to heaven," or some variation. With that I would usually nod my head affirmatively, knowing somehow all my skepticism and questions would be answered by God in a X-files style revelation once I got to heaven.
As I entered my teens however, and the sexual feelings I had tried to suppress and deny became stronger and more pronounced, my world, as I knew it, was thrown into crisis. While I hadn't sat through too many Adam and Eve-not-Adam-and-Steve-style sermons, I'd seen and heard enough at school, home and church to know that if I was going to survive, I need to conceal my true self. Like all other questions I had in life, the Bible seemed like that obvious source for an answer. I looked up and read the scriptures condemning homosexuality and gay sex(Lawd knows I heard them enough to have them on speed dial in my mind) and followed my Sunday school teacher's advice to pray and ask God to take away whatever was sinful out of me.
All the while through junior high and high school I heard the whispers and rumors about my sexuality; one month I was banging one of the girls in the school band, the next my best friend and I were "gay together." I wasn't about to give them any truth to gossip about, so I stayed far and away from any of the obviously gay boys at school and never attempted fooling around with another guy.
I constructed a perfect, almost asexual facade, the sweet, polite Kevin who never rebelled, never talked back to his parents, and played piano for his mother's Sunday school. Friends, family, and even my music teacher pressed me about my lack of interest in girls, to which I quickly responded by going out on dates with girls I felt nothing for, or at least not enough to to claim a real attraction. All the while my faith was floundering. My prayers seemed to fall on deaf ears, and feelings of depression, guilt, and self-loathing that I'd managed to hold back for years seemed to flood my psyche. Everywhere I turned, from my church to the music that I listened to my friends to my family and school, I was confronted with constant negativity and hostility about gay people. I took all those stereotypes and swallowed them whole, believing everything I was taught about myself. The harder I tried to fit in, the more I seemed to stand out. I withdrew further, writing angry journal entries about my spiritual turmoil and shutting off my emotions so I wouldn't have to deal with what was going on in my life. God seemed to be on vacation, so I checked out as well.
By senior year it all became too much, so I took refuge in numbing myself with a daily dosage of marijuana. My friends had already been smoking, so, not wanting to appear as more an outsider than I already felt I was, I joined in with a vengeance. I'd smoke a few blunts everyday after school, and blew through at least 10-15 blunts during the weekend. Of course this increased the personal problems, as it became another skeleton in my closet, creating a guilt-ridden cycle. I'd feel like a failure because my sexuality wasn't changing, so I'd smoke to escape the pain. Then I'd felt like shit for smoking and lying to my parents about where I was all hours of the night, every night. Run-ins with the law, including being caught up in a police raid, didn't stop me. I'd tried at least five or six times to quit, but a few days or weeks later I'd be in somone's backseat sparking up. Which of course also made me feel like a failure. My plan was to go through life emotionless, and simply do what everyone else wanted me to do-- go to college, get a degree, marry a woman, pop out a few kids, and drop dead. And to toke until I choke so I wouldn't feel a damn thing through all of it.
Ironically, the beginnings of my spiritual rebirth happened courtesy of the Anti-Christ Superstar himself, Marilyn Manson, as I've blogged about previously. While I didn't realize it at the time, Manson's music and his attitude towards organized religion reawakened those seeds of doubt, skepticism, and questioning that had lain dormant since my obsessions with "fixing" my gayness became the defining focus of my life. I looked at the Bible, God and the concepts of religion and faith with fresh, critical eyes, and began reading gay blogs, books and essays by Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West, and Horace L. Griffin, which took a more nuanced, less literal view of religious belief and homosexuality. I allowed myself to think of my homosexuality as a positive thing, allowed myself to see there is more than one way to look at the world, to become friends with and not fear others who identify as Wiccan, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Agnostic, Atheist or any other religious belief and saw that being non-religious and being a moral human being are not mutually exclusive concepts.
I also realized that God wasn't on vacation or deaf. He was inside me the entire time. I just had to have the courage to stop living for others' approval and be my authentic self, which includes being gay. It's a life lesson I'm still learning to put into practice daily. As for my religious beliefs now, I definitely don't take everything in the Bible literally. I have a hard time believing Jonah lived in the belly of a whale, or that a 900-year old man (i.e. Noah) collected every single species of every single animal on the planet.
In addition the stories of the Israelites slaughtering women, men and children seem contradictory with the image of a peaceful, loving God, as well the idea of a virgin giving birth to a baby that's also supposed to be the same person as his father, whose in heaven, don't sit that well with me. Lastly, I see living, breath examples of people accomplishing things in their life, like losing weight or getting married, having successful careers or making it through hard times without calling on Jesus. And as far as morality, I would still not lie, steal or kill even if the Bible didn't say so. Sometimes I think the god in many religions is there as a symbol to help us focus less on material things and greedy self-interest and more on serving others.
However, I still go to church and pray, play piano for local churches and sing in a community choir. At times this contradictory stance gives me pause: I wonder what my life would be like if I never heard the words Jesus, bible, God, and sin. What kind of person would I be? How sooner would I have accepted my sexuality? To be honest I'm really sure what my religious beliefs are at this point. I'm definitely not a fundamentalist Christian, but I'm not a militant atheist either. I guess the difference now is that I'm allowing myself to entertain these thoughts, to see that spirituality/personal belief is a continuous evolution, not an open-and-shut case. And it's not that scary after all.